It is not possible – not yet anyway – to be buried alive and come back in the flesh. That may be the subject of a future Marvel or DC Comics movie but, for now, human endurance has its limits. The same cannot be said for plant life.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of vines are buried in winter in the provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Shanxi, Hebei, and Jilin. Only to reappear in the spring. This death-defying measure to preserve life is because vines simply cannot survive when the mercury dives to minus 20 degrees Celsius. It gets even colder in some years. Burying vines is not unlike inducing a state of comatose on a patient in order for him to harness every ounce of human energy in order to revive life. Is there however, a permanent cost to the vine?
The conventional wisdom is that in order to produce a great, complex wine, the vine has to suffer. So, for example, the vine should not have to be irrigated. At the same time, the poorer the soil, the better it is for the vine – and resulting wine – because the roots have to forage as deeply as possible for nutrients and moisture. This kind of suffering is beneficial because the vine becomes physically, infrastructurally stronger.
The same cannot be said if the vine were to be regularly – annually – stressed. The stress is literal because the vine – trunk and branches – has to be pulled and dragged down towards the ground in order to be covered with earth. The first time I saw the aftermath – looking out of the tasting room – at Domaine Chandon in Ningxia, my first thought was “where are the vines?”. There were just granite poles – resembling tombstone sentinels – in a sea of yellow earth.
As the vine grows older, its trunk gets thicker. And cannot be buried beyond 25 to 30 years because, ultimately, it snaps when forcefully bent towards the ground. There are no truly old vines in many a Chinese vineyard.
Has the quality ceiling, therefore, been reached for such wines? “No” is the answer. Just as human intervention has prolonged the life of the vine, so human restraint can produce better wine. Most Chinese wines are too oaked. And spend too much time in wood. The instinctive sense of balance in the country’s numerous regional cuisines is missing (with some exceptions) when wok is exchanged for winemaking. A civilisation that once cherished ideas and insightful thinking can surely step back to reflect on producing more harmonious wine.
CH’NG Poh Tiong is a prolific writer, senior wine judge and consultant. He has been a publisher of many magazines, guides and books including The Wine Review, the second oldest wine magazine in Asia. Poh Tiong is also writer of the world’s first guide to Bordeaux in Chinese.
Geography: China is a large country with a range of climates and soils. Inland China has a continental climate with hot summers and extremely cold winters. Coastal areas have milder winters but the humidity is high in the summer and the vines are more susceptible to disease.
Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Gernischt (Carmenère), Chardonnay, Welschriesling
Viticulture: Vines are ungrafted, there is no widespread phylloxera. Labour intensive vine tending increases the production cost in the cold regions: vines have to be buried and unburied before and after winter. Manual harvesting is common.
Winemaking: Chinese wineries have attracted huge domestic and international investments. Quality is still variable but there are a growing number of producers making sophisticated wines.
Regions: Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Liaoning, Henan, Ningxia, Yunnan